Sixty Minutes has just reported that Greg Mortenson may have lied or exaggerated about the schools that he built in Afghanistan. He is the author of “Stones into School” and “Three Cups of Tea.” I haven’t read three cups of Tea but I have read Stones into School, which I thought was a very good book, with a couple exceptions, but over all I thought it was good. It is of course disappointing to find out that some of the stories were probably not true; however the dramatic parts about being held hostage isn’t what I thought was the most important. The more disappointing thing is the fact that they didn’t build as many schools as he claimed. This is unfortunate of course but he was the only high profile worker that I know of that was doing much to advance education.
This is indicative of what may be a bigger problem, not just with Mortenson but with the way our society provides incentive for this type of worthwhile work and the way the Mass Media reports on it. Part of the problem is the incentive system that is provided by the capitalist system. Some efforts from Socialist and Communist systems supposedly attempted to do some of these jobs better. They haven’t always succeeded of course and in many cases they have been even worse than the Capitalist system. However that doesn’t mean the Capitalist system does a very good job at doing much if anything that isn’t designed to increase profits for the corporations. The fact that so many people provided support for Mortenson when they thought he was doing something so important seems to imply that a significant percentage of the public agrees at least to some point. It isn’t good enough o donate though if the money is mainly going to go to fund raising. Their needs to be more openness and there should be better ways for people to find good causes on their own when they want to provide charitable donations.
Part of the problem is the fact that the Mass Media is being used almost solely for either profit or propaganda; they rarely do much if anything to educate the public about important issues. When they do things for charity I become suspicious in most cases due to the fact that they do things that clearly don’t seem to be very effective and I often suspect that they may be more interested in improving their own public relation. One big example is the Kids in Need of Desks program that was promoted by Lawrence O’Donnell. Under the current system there is more incentive to do the fund raising than to actually provide the productive work. They routinely have concerts, high priced celebrity dinners, or walks for one cause or another. They rarely ever put nearly as much attention on the actual work itself. One exception may seem to be when Jimmy Carter worked for Habitat for Humanity and he actually did a lot of work. Most of that was when the media wasn’t paying attention. One exception was when Clinton and Gore joined him and the media made a big show of it; unfortunately when this happened they probably accomplished very little and they even made a point of talking about how incompetent Clinton and Gore were at that type of work. Carter even went so far as to say that Clinton didn’t even know how to hold a hammer and they showed him slowly nailing without accomplishing anything.
We need a system that educates people from an early age to participate in these programs or at least learn about them. The AmeriCorps and Peace Corps could be good examples of this if they’re run well. Instead of teaching children that they should serve their country by joining the military perhaps we should have more social programs like this along with periodic reviews to find out how to improve on them.
We shouldn’t let this controversy prevent additional efforts to do projects like this in the future: instead it should be an example to learn from and we should try to find more ways to direct the money that these people donate to the right causes. Perhaps part of that could involve bigger grass roots effort to do work that directly accomplishes something like teaching children locally. Or we could find ways to cut the costs of these speaking tours or make the books available online for free downloading with recommendations about how to donate. This would reduce the production and distribution costs which don’t go to the schools anyway. They spend more money trying to control how the information is distributed than they have to; this money should be diverted to better causes. They could also reduce the cost of education by revising the copyright laws so that those getting an education would be able to exchange educational material more effectively and they would be able to add to the public domain much more without charging too much for an education.
For previous blog post on protecting the Afghan schools see the following:
For the CBS article on the Mortenson see:
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